A Balancing Act

How empathetic can you be without sacrificing objectivity?  How sympathetic can you be and still be helpful?

The Oxford Online Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  I can empathize with your feelings when you are told someone you care about has a dreadful disease.  I can understand what you are feeling, but I don’t experience it myself in any great measure.  I can’t really put myself in your place because I have never received any similar news.  This draws on an intellectual analysis of the experience.

Sympathy, according to the same source, is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.  I sympathize with your outrage at being insulted, and what was said to you makes me angry.  It is one of the few times the phrase I feel for you is actually valid—it is something I can experience acutely and vividly.  This draws profoundly on similar experience and emotional memory.

These two are not necessarily separate from one another, but opposites on the same continuum.  One can be sympathetic and empathetic simultaneously, although not equally.

It is not uncommon for people to confuse empathy and sympathy, to think without feeling and feel without thinking.  Daily media provides a cornucopia of examples of both.  It also not uncommon for people who have shared your experience to protect themselves by empathizing instead of sympathizing, because the emotional memory may be too painful, or too far in the past to be really felt.

We can understand and imagine how it feels to go through a divorce, for example, without having been through a divorce ourselves.  Although we may not be able to relate directly to the experience of divorce, we remember what it was like to have a relationship end unhappily.  (Our sympathy is engaged.)  We may not have had to deal with the legalities of separation, division of property, and custody of children and pets, but we have had similar experiences to help us understand how it must feel (our empathy is awakened).  We may have some feelings about that.  One is never ‘purely’ one or the other.

Helping someone through a crisis, whether you have experienced something similar or not, awakens both of these awarenesses.  Both are important in terms of your being able to respond genuinely, supportively, and comfortingly.  You can be very empathetic with little or no discernible sympathy, and seem so ‘clinical’ that while a problem may be addressed, a troubled human being goes unvalidated.  People in need require validation/confirmation—what has happened is horrible and painful, what they’re experiencing is not imagined, and they are not alone—there are people who understand.

On the other hand, it is little help to anyone if you are more upset about something than the other person is—too much sympathy.  You cannot have someone else’s experiences for them—if someone kicks you, should I be the one to limp?

(A word of caution.  At no time should anyone ever be led to think that because other people have had the same experience, the individual’s pain and upset aren’t real, aren’t valid and justified, or are less important than anyone else’s.  There may be six billion lives on the planet, but each life is individual and unique, despite apparent similarities.)

In order to be an effective listener, helper or comforter, a level of objectivity must be maintained.  This is difficult because by our very nature, we are not objective at all.  Everything we see and hear we first see and hear through our own eyes and ears, and conceptualize through our own experience, or lack thereof.  Objectivity (which the Oxford Online Dictionary defines as the quality of not [being] influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts) entails discipline (training) and maturity.  In some walks of life, it relies on empirical information—how tall, how wide, how heavy, etc.

Subjectivity, on the other hand, is based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.  No training or discipline is required, and the experience and wisdom that come with age may not temper it—at best, delay objectivity.

As an example, recently a woman posted a Facebook imagine that mocked the Crucifixion.  I commented that I thought this was distasteful (subjective), and was told ‘To each his own’, what seemed to me to be a careless and inflammatory response.  Objectively, she was quite correct—I effectually chose to be offended because of my values.  The image itself met the standards for acceptable expression by Facebook’s rules, as well as those of the Constitution.  Subjectively, I was deeply offended, I thought she should have known better, I felt great disappointment in her, and hid the item from my page.

You can see how inseparable empathy and sympathy are, and it is clear how easily objectivity can be contaminated with personal opinion.  Pure objectivity, without a touch of both empathy and sympathy, may cause as many difficulties as it solves.  It calls for a sense of Balance, which the Oxford Online Dictionary defines as an even distribution of (something) enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.

Whether subjective or objective, sympathetic or empathetic, Balance of these dichotomous qualities must be sustained by Humanity and compassion.  Oddly, in keeping emotions in check and preventing them from too heavily influencing a decision, or not allowing cold logical analysis to rule us and leave someone in emotional suspension, we must rely on something that is erratic and illogical.


I love paradox.


If you enjoyed reading this, please take a look at my eBooks on Amazon.com:

Behind These Red Doors: Stories a Cathedral Could Tell : http://amzn.to/1iGMFUp

Lives of the Ain’ts: Comedic Biographies of Directors Errant:  http://amzn.to/1nPvqoc

The Inn of Souls: http://amzn.to/1lD7xjJ





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